Laiban Dam has intrigued me ever since I first saw photos of mountain bikers visiting this oddity in the Sierra Madre mountains. This massive concrete monolith built during the Marcos era, sticks out of a forested mountainside like an evil lair for a James Bond villain—a structure that’s meant to be broken into, entered and explored.
Laiban Dam was supposed to supply Metro Manila with more than a million liters of water per day. However, concerns over the dam’s environmental impact, and the displacement of thousands of indigenous Dumagats from their ancestral lands, eventually caused the project to be shelved. And now Laiban Dam just sits there unused like a monument to human folly.
I have been itching to ride there and see the goddamned dam for myself. It’s not everyday that you get face to face with some Cold War level coolness. Last week, I finally got to do it. And it was one hell of an awesome mountain bike ride.
We started our ride from the Sierra Madre hotel along the Marilaque highway. Right from the start I knew that this was going to be one for the coffee table books. A thick fog was blanketing the mountains and visibility was down to just 30-40 feet. Motorcycles and cars had even turned on their headlights to cut through the misty air. It was just sweet, almost perfect mountain biking weather.
Ours was a motley crew of bikes. Two of us were on 29ers, Travel Up was on a 4X bike, another was on a Surly Moonlander, while another was on a vintage steel Baracuda with V-brakes.
Because of the fog, we could hardly see any of the familiar landmarks. Though I had ridden this highway hundreds of times before, we still got lost because I couldn’t see the Pagasa weather station that was supposed to be the marker for the road to Laiban. Or maybe I just really sucked at navigating simple Google map directions.
Anyway, we eventually found our road. It was a chilly downhill ride to Laiban. As much as we wanted to rip the descents, the slick muddy terrain had us frequently gripping our brakes. Apparently, Sierra Madre did not get the memo that a monster El Nino was supposed to be turning the entire country into a Sahara. Instead, it was rainy and muddy all thorughout the ride.
Motorcyclists have a joke: How do you tell a real motorcyclist from a poser? Simple, when a real motorcyclist opens his mouth, there are bugs stuck in his teeth. Anyone who has carved twisties while the sun set will get the joke.
For mountain bikers, it’s probably more like this. You know them from the dirt stuck in their teeth. While riding the muddy downhill to Laiban, our tires collected shovelfulls of dirt, flung them in the air, and right into our gaping grinning mouths. We couldn’t stop smiling despite the chunks of mud being flicked into our faces. Such is MTB life.
I knew that eventually we had to do several river crossings. I just didn’t know we would be doing it so early in the ride. No complaints though. Water crossings make a mountain bike ride extra special. I actually feel like something’s missing from an MTB event when it doesn’t involve a river crossing or two.
My bike buddies, who are veterans of dozens of rides to Puray Falls couldn’t help but compare the two destinations. Puray was drying up and getting strewn with trash. The river also turned into a chocolate brown concoction when it rained. The streams of Laiban meanwhile remained clear as vodka, and free of plastic debris. Something really needs to be done about Puray to bring it back to its old glory.
Barangay Laiban is a quiet little village that’s not easy to get to. It took us an hour and a half of riding, along with many piktyur-piktyur stops to get there. While we rested and refueled our tired legs, we asked the locals about how far we still had to go.
“Mga tatlong ilog pa,” was their answer. They say that in the Cordillera, they measure distance in terms of bundok — as in Ilang bundok pa po ba ang layo? Apparently in the Sierra Madre, they measure it in terms of ilog. So if you’re used to measuring distance in terms of kilometers recorded on your Strava, you may need to change your frame of mind.
It rained while we made one river crossing after another. While it was not exactly the Ondoy kind of rain, it still left us drenched and cold. After our third river crossing, we lost track of just how many ilogs we had crossed.
There were also times when we had to dismount and push our bikes up very steep slopes and walk unrideable rock gardens galore. In some crossings, the water was up to three feet deep. But even in the deeper parts of the river where it looked eight to ten feet deep, the water was so clear that you could see the rocks at the bottom. The Sierra Madre is a really magical place.
Finally, after what seemed like several interminable chapters in the Lord of the Rings, we finally saw the goddamned dam. It looked so alien amid the surrounding mountains and forests. I felt like some hobbit who had just travelled up the river Anduin and seen the Pillars of the Kings.
But before we could enter the dam, some self-styled guy in a Gandalf suit appeared out of nowhere, waved his staff, and said: “You shall not pass!!!… until you’ve paid the 20 peso entrance fee.”
Actually, it was just one of the caretakers and he wasn’t really in a wizard’s garb. There was some confusion about collecting tourist fees and barangay fees to enter the dam, but after forking up some change, the guard and caretakers finally allowed us inside the dam.
While the journey to the dam reminded me of Midde Earth, the journey through the tunnel was more like a scene from 28 Days Later. There’s something about dark, damp tunnels that just reminds you of lurking monsters and zombies.
As we waded into stagnant water inside the tunnel, I kept imagining that some unspeakable evil would suddenly burst forth from the water. Or worse, a leech would crawl up my shorts and… let’s not got there.
The water was knee-high in some parts, and I could see shrimp and fish getting startled by our company. Thankfully, no monster came out to greet us. We had a lot of fun scaring each other though. It seemed as long as or even longer than Corregidor’s Malinta tunnel.
The guards said there was a trail leading outside the tunnel leading to the dirt road which would take us to Daraitan. However, we didn’t see any trail and had to make our own path through the thicket.
From there it was another 6-7 kilometer mostly uphill ride to Daraitan. It would have been nice to hike to Tinipak rocks again and swim in the undergound stream. But most of us were already tired from the Laiban trek.
We all just wanted to eat lunch before the more arduous climb back up to Sierra Madre hotel. In the words of a member of our group: quota na kami sa Laiban pa lang.
One of these days I’m really going to have to lug a tent and do this again. But this time we’d camp overnight in Daraitan. Now THAT would be a perfect mountain biking adventure.